Facebook and the Surveillance State: The Death of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova

by Sarah Kendzior on 12/7/2011 · 25 comments

I am looking at the Facebook page of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. Gulsumoy writes about how she misses her mother, how she has the flu, how happy she is that Eid has arrived. She is from Andijon, Uzbekistan, but now she lives in Munich, Germany. She writes, “Qayerda bo’lsam ham Qalbim sendadur Vatanim” – “Wherever I am, my heart is in my homeland”, and writes it again in English and German for good measure. Gulsumoy is interested in Uzbek dissident causes. She reposts articles about corruption in the government from Radio Free Europe and posts links to Uzbek dissident websites. Like everyone else on Facebook, Gulsumoy’s “likes” are publicly proclaimed: The Hadith, the Qur’an, the Uzbekistan People’s Movement. Like many Uzbeks, she has left her Facebook profile on its default public setting, which is how I am able to read it, after she died.

On December 4, 2011, Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, a 32-year-old university student, killed herself after being interrogated by the national security services of Uzbekistan for four days. She had returned to Uzbekistan for a vacation but was taken in for questioning due to her links to dissidents abroad. While in custody, Gulsumoy was tortured. The police told her that unless she complied with their demands, they would go after her family in Uzbekistan. According to some reports, they asked her to carry out a plot to murder Uzbekistan People’s Movement leader Muhammad Salih, who is in exile in Europe.

Gulsumoy left a suicide note saying she would rather die than harm another person.

Why did the Uzbek police single out Gulsumoy? This question has baffled members of the Uzbek opposition. Gulsumoy was not an ardent activist, or even a member of the Uzbekistan People’s Movement. Dissident Hazratqul Xudoyberdi told Ferghana.ru: “I met Gulsumoy on Facebook. And I just can’t understand the logic guiding policemen of the Andijon department of interior where she was kept and tortured for four days. Why? Just because she had met some of our compatriots living abroad on Facebook?”

Yes.

Now let me be clear. Facebook doesn’t kill people; the national security services of Uzbekistan do. But Gulsumoy’s Facebook page was, according to most reports, the only thing linking her to Uzbek dissident causes. By joining Facebook and interacting with Uzbek dissidents online, Gulsumoy was able to participate in a political world completely closed to her in Uzbekistan. By sharing links from Uzbek dissident websites, Gulsumoy was able to inform her friends about events that the Uzbek government would rather keep secret. (Much like Uzbeks are doing now by posting about the death of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova.) By doing this on Facebook, she made herself a government target.

As a religious Muslim from Andijon living abroad in Germany, Gulsumoy very well might have been interrogated whether or not her Facebook profile had proclaimed her dissident leanings. One of the world’s greatest surveillance states hardly needs Facebook to be functional. But Facebook made her leanings concrete, categorized, and damning in a way they might not have been otherwise. Gulsumoy posted under a pseudonym, but it was easy to ascertain her real identity. When you have enemies of the state on your friends list, the government will notice. The fact that her profile is public – which is what happened to so many dissidents after Facebook changed its privacy settings – allows anyone to look into her world. Even me. Even the Uzbek government.

A Facebook profile is not a person. I did not know Gulsumoy, and part of me feels uncomfortable piecing together her life through stray posts and comments. It feels dehumanizing to piece together fragments of a life shattered in such a horrifying way. But that is precisely the point. Fragments are evidence in Uzbekistan. This is no different on the ground, where dissident and Islamic leaflets are routinely cited (or planted) as means for arrest. But on Facebook, stray thoughts and loose leanings become permanent. They are harvested for insight, and evidence.

“The day is coming soon – soon, the PEOPLE will be free,” Gulsumoy wrote on October 3. What prompted her to write this? We will never know – but the very fact that she did likely helped ensure she would never see that day arrive.


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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on Registan.net.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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{ 25 comments }

Turgai December 7, 2011 at 11:42 am

إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ

“Who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.’” (Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:156)

Find comfort in the certainity that Hell awaits Karimov and his bloodhounds.

Grant December 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Irritatingly God seems to work a bit too slowly and people like Karimov aren’t easily removed by other humans. Expect far more deaths like this (or far worse) before there is any chance of Karimov facing justice.

Metin December 8, 2011 at 4:04 am

If what you wrote is true, a moslem woman committed suicide. That does not fit well with Islamic religion. Islam explicitly prohibits suicide. Committing such a deed is considered committing the greatest sin – taking away life given by the god.
It is a tragedy when someone dies. Making out of it a case for publicity is unethical.

CMB December 8, 2011 at 5:53 am

If what you wrote is true, a moslem woman was tortured and raped by Uzbek security forces. That does not fit well with Islamic religion. Islam explicitly prohibits torture and rape. Committing such a deed is considered committing the greatest sin – taking away life given by the god.
It is a tragedy when someone dies. Not speaking the truth about it is unethical.

Metin December 8, 2011 at 7:36 am

CMB, I agree with you on the issue of ethics. But jumping to fast conclusions as the author did is simply not serious. If this story is true and not wishful thinking of the author, those responsible must face justice.

Payne, Thomas Payne December 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm

A human being died – instead of showing compassion you are passing judgment? You are defending the regime when it is time to show compassion for your fellow human being. Uzbek security services are infamous for having people whose sole job is to monitor expression online, plant opinions to blunt the damage to the regime. I bet that’s what you are doing here – trying to save the regime’s face at all cost, even at the expense of a dead person. I didn’t know you people can go that low!

peaceful uzbek December 8, 2011 at 5:23 am

No such profile exists on facebook – at least I can’t find it! This story was made up by Salay – the loser oppositionist whom we do not need!

CMB December 8, 2011 at 5:48 am

A peaceful Uzbek, but not very smart:

https://www.facebook.com/Gulsumxon

peaceful uzbek December 8, 2011 at 6:40 am

CMB, thank you for your cleverly help. Being a modest and naive Uzbek, I was searching by her first and last names which wasn’t leading to her profile. Silly me, not trying to think of various possible surnames that fictional character might have used, just as she doesn’t even have a photo of her own…

CMB December 8, 2011 at 6:52 am

Searching for her name, as noted above, gets you her profile:

https://www.facebook.com/search/results.php?q=Gulsumoy%20Abdujalilova&init=quick&tas=0.7350563389901004

It’s the first and only result.

Turgai December 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

@peaceful uzbek: I agree that the importance of Muhammed Salih (and Abduraim Pulat) is now merely symbolic and historical rather than actual. For one, they’ve been abroad for too long to still have a real base in Uzbekistan itself.

@Metin: ‘unethical’… Hm, if this case is real and not a setup, we still don’t know what Karimov’s Chekisti made the lady go through that pushed her to suicide: rape; maybe they took on some of her relatives (an old stalinist and inquisitionist method); etc…

peaceful uzbek December 8, 2011 at 5:24 am

if you can read russian u definitely should read the following article – http://uzmetronom.com/2011/12/08/gulsalajj_otkrojj_lichiko.html

CMB December 8, 2011 at 6:03 am

Sure, there have been fakes before, like the guy who was pretending to be a female Syrian blogger. While the Uzbek woman in question may not be real (we’ll find out in the next couple of days – the German government should be able to provide a quick answer), the torture and rape in Uzbek prisons and police stations is still very real.

Turgai December 8, 2011 at 8:05 am

Yes, there have been fakes before, like this news launched by Iranian oppositionsts and former Pahlavi cronies in exile in the US back in 2006 that Ahmadinejad obliged Iranian Jews to wear the yellow star on their coats.

OK in this case it’s possible this one is too, just like it remains possible that the article is a «заказуха». The question is, who owns/controls uzmetronom?

CMB December 8, 2011 at 6:19 am

The reason I’m waiting for confirmation from Germany is not just the link above, but the profile photo on facebook. It’s looks like a professional shot of a Turkish model – not a student from the Ferghana Valley. But again, the torture in Uzbekistan is still very real.

CMB December 8, 2011 at 6:55 am

OK, so her profile picture is not real. It’s Armine Eşarpları (a model). That’s doesn’t mean she’s not real. Again, someone at HRW or German Foreign Ministry is probably checking at this moment and we’ll get an independent verification soon enough.

CMB December 8, 2011 at 7:16 am

Was just pointed to a RFE/RL article with her actual picture:

http://www.rferl.org/content/uzbek_woman_kills_herself_after_long_police_investigation/24413536.html

Sorry for the excessive commenting. Hopefully it hasn’t distracted from the fact that the Uzbek state tortures and murders its own people.

Sarah Kendzior December 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

If this turns out to be a fake, I will write a follow-up. As of now, I don’t think it is, for two reasons. The first is that Uzbeks are regularly tortured, harassed, and abused by NSS officers, who also have a documented history of targeting Uzbeks abroad and associates of exiled Uzbeks in Uzbekistan.

The second reason is that no one cares. Last summer two Uzbek journalists nearly starved themselves to death on YouTube, in real time, painstakingly documenting the entire process on Twitter, and hardly anyone wrote about it. Staging a suicide is not a reliable way to bring attention to the plight of Uzbek dissidents. This is not an Amina situation, with a trendy cause that attracts reliable supporters. If Gulsomoy was fabricated with the goal of mobilizing Uzbek dissidents, and not the international community, it also serves no purpose, because it would only stress the risks of being involved with Uzbek dissident causes – a message that they would not want to emphasize (and, at the same time, a message that everyone already well knows).

Exaggeration and deception play a role in all Uzbek politics, but something like this would be absolutely unprecedented.

Catherine Fitzpatrick December 8, 2011 at 11:35 am

Sarah, it would be unprecedented if you mean that it would be so for the Uzbek exile opposition to cook up a story like this.

But it wouldn’t be unheard of in this region whatsoever, as in the last century, this meme has repeated over and over again: the secret police agent sent to assassinate somebody and having a change of heart, and the opposition pointing to the amazing story to amplify its credibility and discredit the secret police — even as the KGB then infiltrates the emigre group. A very old and oft-repeated story.

My first report on the story
http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64654

Todays’ report describing the secret police meme used throughout the Soviet era, and going over Urlaeva’s account
http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64659

What stands out for me is that Urlaeva called both the Uzbekistan MVD hotline and the Andijan MVD hotline. Unlike the results that the smarties from uzmetronom.com got with blazing speed, Urlaeva didn’t get an answer “we have no such person”. Indeed, she had every reason to believe such a person existed. The police could have very easily blown her off with a simple statement that they had no such case — they’ve done that lots of times with human rights lawyers and defenders. They didn’t this time.

Here is my analysis of this story: there likely is really such a student, maybe not in Germany, maybe from somewhere else, maybe only from Russia. She was questioned about her stay abroad, and raped — you don’t mention that piece of it; Urlaeva says she suspected a rape had occurred and that was the motivation for her suicide, not the idea that “she couldn’t do harm to another person” (stretched).

I’m guessing that the PMU and Salih pieces of it were grafted on somewhere along the line, innocently, through interpolation, or with security police help.

Trying to get the German government to pronounce on this might take awhile and they might cite privacy. My hope is that Fergananews.com which has good reporters will try to get reports from local or national police as uzmetronom.com did, but with more credibility. Maybe somebody can try to find this sister who has suddenly disappeared.

In any event, my guess is not that the PMU, which of course is very much eager to brand itself and influence public opinion, cooked up this story, but that the NSS did. The purpose is to get everyone terrified to join or even “like” any Facebook pages. Mission accomplished.

Sarah Kendzior December 8, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I will write more on the Gulsumoy case as information comes in. I agree with most of your conclusions. The most important point you raise is about the amazing speed with which the Uzbek bureaucracy allegedly responded.

As for Facebook, there are two ways to look at it. The first scenario is that the NSS scares Uzbeks away from joining political groups on Facebook and stifles online communication. The second scenario is that they leave the situation alone, Uzbeks join dissident groups on Facebook, and the NSS gathers valuable information from their interaction. Either way, the NSS wins.

DW December 8, 2011 at 7:36 pm

The Uzmetronom story is incredibly fishy. I’m really surprised that it’s been referenced and repeated (not very critically) by Eurasianet and others. It’s very, very similar to a whole series of stories published this year on NSS-front media outlets in direct response to articles that appear on Fergananews or Ozodlik.

The pattern for these stories is that an “independant journalist,” usually one who mysteriously has never published anything else, does an “independant investigation” that is incredibly (in the literal sense) thorough and “disproves” every point of a critical story.

Uzmetronom has a lot of problems as a source, and one of the most persistent is that most of their articles are just rumors reprinted with vague sources. I have never seen an article on Uzmetronom that could be described as investigative journalism, and yet suddenly in order to disprove this story Uzmetronom’s journalists work around the clock to, within roughly 48 hours (watch these claims) contact 1) every single registration office in Andijon province 2) all border and immigration services in Uzbekistan 3) every major airport in Germany through “their own confidential sources.”

Since when does a tiny web-only publication in Tashkent run by only a couple of people have “its own confidential sources” at all of Germany’s major airports who give them private travel information? Nothing about this story seems credible. Try calling up an airport in the US or Europe and asking them to search their passenger records over a period of multiple months for a specific name and see what answer you get.

Even if all this investigation were possible, and even if by some miracle all of these authorities cooperated with a journalist trying to do it, there remains the larger question of motive. Why would Uzmetronom suddenly develop a crack investigative ability AND choose to use it to disprove a story that makes the opposition look cynical and heartless or makes a rights activist look naive and foolish? Why would Uzmetornom use its suddenly acquired investigative skills to suddenly defend the reputation of the government security services that it spends most of its time criticizing?

There’s an awful lot that doesn’t add up here. There are other things wrong with the article and suspicious similarities to similar “investigations” against free media stories that I won’t take up more space analyzing here. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Gulsumoy story is true, but the stories supposedly disproving her death should be subjected to at least as much scrutiny as the original.

Turgai December 9, 2011 at 6:15 am

Again, the question is who or what is behind Uzmetronom. That’s not clear. Uznews.Net, for example, is clearly geared towards, if not the oppositio in exile, then at least towards people who are, at best, critical of the Karimov regime. Ferghana.Ru, which is based in Moscow, is something driven by intelligentsia and ethnic Russians from Uzbekistan (many of whom now live outside of the country too).

But Uzmetronom? DW (and Eurasianet) claim that it is based in Tashkent, yet they wear the stamp «Сайт заблокирован в Узбекистане» (“site blocked in Uzbekistan”), so…

One possible line of thinking in this whole story is, that Uzmetronom has some connection to the group around Abduraim Pulat, who is, along with Mohammed Salih, is a key figure in Uzbekistan’s historical opposition and not Salih’s best friend to say the least (an old ego battle for control over the opposition). And the Uzmetronom article about an alleged Gulsomoy hoax is clearly directed against the person of Salih.

“The first scenario is that the NSS scares Uzbeks away from joining political groups on Facebook and stifles online communication. The second scenario is that they leave the situation alone, Uzbeks join dissident groups on Facebook, and the NSS gathers valuable information from their interaction.”

The first approach (try to keep people away form such online communities) might have been dominant until, say, five or six years ago. Yet since the events in Kyrgystan and then the Arab Spring and, especially, the move of much of Uzbekistan’s non-official political life abroad (in exile and/or labour migration) it is impossible that the Milli Havsizlik Kizmati has not understood the importance of such media and switched to the second strategy. A few years ago, they had already infiltrated odnoklassniki.ru

Metin December 9, 2011 at 8:10 am

uzmetronom should have good sources indeed. They often give information (citing ‘own sources’) well in advance before events happen – e.g. change of mayors of some regions. Their refutation might be credible as well – checking information on a database is not something that difficult in today’s digital era.

As for investigative journalism, the author is not really a good example of that. It is a very sentimental story (no wonder if some cried after reading it), and nothing more. A moslem commiting suicide (the greatest sin in Islam) for being asked (!) to kill some opposition leaders – only naive person would eat that.

Will December 9, 2011 at 10:29 am

Uzmetronom.com’s most predictions proved true, unlike ferghana.ru (with uzbek hating “intellegentsia”) or eurasinet.org (speculations news organization), or ozodlik.org (the most unreliable of all). It is not that difficult to check registration office or Customs (not border and immigration office) if you have the right connection, not necessarily with NSS). Besides, Customs maintains a central database, so one doesn’t have to check every branch office. Similarly, they can look up any name through the law enforcement database (again there is a central database) to check whether such a person exists. You can also check every registration office in Andijan, for example, through someone from the ministry of Justice. My point is these facts are easy to check though how uzmetronom checked with border patrol in three major German airports (not every major airport!) didn’t convince me.
On the other hand, the Eurasianet.org journalist writes based on speculations. How hard is it to check if Gulsumoy was a student in Germany or contact her sister. So why should I believe them or others if their story is based on stories of others whose stories are based on someone else’s, etc. Do your own investigation if you want to prove that Uzmetronom is wrong!
No uzbek student with a clear mind would write he/she worked for PMU on their facebook page if they visit Uzbekistan and have relatives back home. And yes, uzmetronom.com is right that local law enforcement cannot force someone to kill someone else abroad. This is absurd! It is not their territory. Until uzmetronom’s facts proven wrong with facts, I have no reason to believe a story based on speculations.

Grant December 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

The last point isn’t very strong. They can’t force someone to kill a person in another country. That doesn’t mean that they can’t make life very unpleasant if this doesn’t happen.

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